Monday 30 May 2011

The Screenager

I came across a new word this week in Richard Watson’s Future Minds: screenager. While the wiggly red underline tells me it’s a new word to Microsoft too, Google reports over 200,000 instances and the OED’s earliest citation is from 1994. The definition is guessable and refers to teenagers (the OED graciously includes twenty-somethings) who have grown up having had the majority of their world mediated by a screen, be it television, computer, or mobile phone.

Watson is a futurologist (no red line, half the number of hits and 1967) who is exploring the ways in which technology has changed the way in which we are thinking and arguing for the need to include ‘deep thinking’ in our mental diet. His book includes many similar ideas to Nicholas Carr’s The Shallows and many of the points that are made in both texts are important for people to consider.

I was first aware that technology had physically changed me when, after getting broadband installed at home in 1997 (even though I had been accessing the Internet over a dialup connection since 1993), I was spending much more time online staring at the screen and I had to start wearing glasses. In reading these books, I am also now able to recognise the changes in the way I am thinking.

I feel in a privileged position as I am adept at using the new technologies and endeavour to embrace them but I can also – with a little effort – sustain a far more focused approach to reading or writing and I am just about happy to manage a few days without Internet access as travelling abroad sometimes enforces (although I am, admittedly, always pleased when my phone logs onto a free wireless network).

As teachers we are told that our students need short activities to keep their attention; indeed, research shows this is more effective in helping learning. However, this is pandering to the rewired brains of the screenager. Carr cites research which shows how quickly the brain will rewire and retrain itself (a mere five hours of using the Internet showed changes occurring in an adult’s brain) so the reverse - undoing these changes - must also be true.

While writing this, I have Facebook open in another browser tab, but I am refusing to allow myself to switch to it as I know it will distract me (and I firmly believe that we are not as competent at multitasking as people believe, regardless of alleged gender differences). In doing this I am making myself concentrate on writing this blog and thereby forcing myself to think more ‘deeply’.

I think adults – and in particular teachers – need to bear this in mind and young people should be made aware of it. When our minds jump rapidly from one thing to another we are living a very superficial mental existence. We need to take time and, if necessary force ourselves to, engage more completely in what we are doing. However, the engagement may also be in time away from the screen: time in which to reflect on what we have said or read or heard or written.

In allowing our brains to have been rewired to process information (and I chose my words carefully) more like a computer, we are – arguably – losing one of the most important things which makes us human and many of us simply need to take time, make space, and think.

Sunday 15 May 2011

Facebooking Eurovision

Much against my better judgement I was compelled to watch the Eurovision Song Contest on Saturday evening. I do not intend this post to be a release of my pent up annoyance at the (generally) tuneless and out of tune songs, or the lunacy of some of the costumes, or the embarrassing fact that so many countries’ songs were performed in English (notably contrasted by the French presenter’s refusal to speak any English), or the tedium of the entire results process, rather it is a reflection on the way in which I watched it.

Having had the television tuned to BBC1, I used my smartphone (an increasingly inappropriate name when it’s used more for computing than phoning) to update my Facebook status with some sarcastic remark as is my wont. Within a couple of minutes, a Facebook friend defended the event; we exchanged a couple more comments with me still using my smartphone before I had to resort to my laptop computer to type my comments and responses at a rate at which I could keep up with the other posts that were also appearing.

As I had the full size keyboard I was able to update my status and respond to other people’s comments at a far faster pace and, seeing all of this going on, my wife picked up her laptop and we sat next to each other on the sofa engaged in digital exchanges with other people and occasionally with each other. I was quickly paying more attention to Facebook than to the television and duly made a remark about my status hosting a virtual Eurovision party.

Despite teaching about the purpose of texts and considering their permanence (at A-Level, at least), I am struggling to define what we were writing. Unlike instant messaging, which can most readily be paralleled to a conversation as the most ephemeral of texts, our posts and comments have – unless I delete them – become a part of my Facebook Wall for all to see. What we were saying, or writing, was in effect a private conversation (or, more accurately, a series of personal conversations as different trains of thought were pursued in different update threads), but it was all carried out in public and a record remains for anyone to read. While I know the likelihood of it being read in the future is minimal, we have added more to our ‘external memory’ or, for want of an alliterative oxymoronic description, our personal public persona. We are generating digital content at a phenomenal rate, but to what purpose?

Google has said that their aim is to organise the world’s information, and if you Googled ‘Eurovision’ during the event, their results included a live news feed and posts from the Twittersphere; I have seen this during other live events and assume it is a regular feature. What were personal remarks and comments for friends have become part of a greater public consciousness.

But none of this really crossed my mind as I sat commenting and updating my status. It was entertaining to interact with friends in our virtual environment: arguably, the Internet has made communication the easiest thing on the planet but it is, ironically, removing a human element from the whole process. Maybe next year I should invite a group of people round so we can be rude about the songs in person.

Sunday 8 May 2011

John Christopher Timothy Jennings

John Christopher Timothy Jennings is a name I fondly associate with my childhood. He was mentioned to me again recently and I was reminded of the fact that, unlike Richmal Crompton’s William Brown and Frank Richards’s Billy Bunter, his name is unknown to many people, despite the usually Midas-like Stephen Fry having recorded audio versions of some of the Jennings books which are still broadcast relatively regularly on Radio 7.

Although I have not read Crompton or Richards for some years, I do still revisit Anthony Buckeridge’s books and, as a result of the comment, thought I would try to consider their appeal. In short, I believe that Buckeridge provides a realistic perspective on the thoughts, behaviour and actions of a group of 11-13 year old boys. As a former preparatory school teacher, he was ideally placed to observe the lives of his charges and does so in a way which combines an adult’s insightfulness with a youngster’s unbounded enthusiasm.

When I first encountered the Jennings books, I (like the eponymous hero) was a boarder at a preparatory school. I feel that it is the realism of the situations coupled with the tendency of incidents to develop one step further than one would imagine that makes the stories entertaining while retaining an important authenticity. Critics have acknowledged Buckeridge’s good understanding of how boys talk, but what seems more convincing to me is Buckeridge’s understanding of how small boys think. One early example is the explanation as to why Temple, whose initials are CAT, is known as ‘Bod’.

As Temple’s initials are CAT the other boys obviously call him Dog; however, that was felt to be to long-winded so they call him Dogsbody for short. When Jennings points out that Dogsbody is, in fact, longer than Dog, Venables’s simple response is that it therefore needs shortening to Bod, succinctly summarising it as ‘Bod short for Body and Dogsbody short for Dog.’

Apart from the glorious schoolboy illogicality, this moment also demonstrates Buckeridge’s insight. The explanation is given to Jennings over the first meal the pupils share at the start of his time at Linbury Court and his naivety in the matter is greeted scornfully by the other boys, including Atkinson. Buckeridge’s understanding of the behaviour of the boys is shown when he tells the reader:
Atkinson, as a new boy, had asked exactly the same question less than a year before, but his manner implied that he had been born with preparatory school jargon on his lips.
From experience I know that such details are true to life and that such concerns are real and it is entertaining (and potentially reassuring) to see them written down. Reading them today they also serve to bring a wry smile to one’s lips as previous preoccupations are remembered affectionately, doubtlessly through rose-tinted spectacles, and with a light heart.

If I do have a criticism of Buckeridge it is for writing two more Jennings books in the 1990s, some fourteen years after the previous book had been published. One of them, Jennings Again!, is concerned with the fashionable green issues of the late twentieth century and, as a result, makes it feel, ironically, more dated than texts first published in the 1950s. However, if these can be overlooked as aberrations, I would heartily encourage anyone to make John Christopher Timothy Jennings’s acquaintance.